The Mental Side of Racing


Racing At Your Best

Every runner, regardless of whether novice or Olympic level, reaches a point during the race (or hard workout) when discomfort reaches a point (i.e., the wall) where they make a decision to either slow down and back off (run into the wall and acquiesce) or keep going (push back the wall).

The most common fears during racing (or hard workouts) are fear of failure and fear of suffering.

Exercise fatigue is caused by the brain.  It is real, not an illusion.  Brain-centered exercise fatigue is itself a virtually infallible safety mechanism.  The brain triggers fatigue in response to physiological signals of impending danger sent from the muscles, blood, etc.

Discomfort is a big part of competitive distance running.  To race well, you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. The brain produces the sensory symptoms of fatigue.  Fatigue is triggered by the brain before the body is actually ready to become tired. The best analogy I’ve heard is that of the low gas indicator in your car.  It alerts you well before you will run out of gas.  You can be going along fine, and then an unexpected hill, a sudden headwind, or getting passed by a runner you knew you could beat, and fatigue mysteriously sets in.

There’s nothing you can do about the discomfort of racing, but you do have some control over how much suffering our fatigue-related discomfort causes.  The mind has some leeway to reject messages of fatigue. . Your brain will never allow you to experience more suffering than you can tolerate.  Accept race discomfort – to the point of even welcoming it and embracing it.  Don’t wish it away, but instead welcome it as an indication that you are working as hard as you should be. Anticipate it and afterward use it to rate your performance.

Before a Race

Don’t obsess about outcomes and results and failures.  Set your body free to do what it does best, what you have trained it to do.  Refuse to focus on anything but the joy and the fun of a well-executed plan.

At the start of a race, focus only on those variables you can control, i.e., your emotions and how you will conduct yourself.  Don’t be concerned with how you feel, how your competitors appear, or the environmental conditions.

  • Relax with breathing exercises – long, slow, controlled breathing before race or workout
  • Visualization -- visualize your race – “see” yourself responding to the unexpected in a positive, effective manner
  • Affirmations

During a Race

During a race, control what you can – you can control how you choose to run – your pace, your form, your surges, your race plan.

You run your best when you concentrate intensely and purposefully on what you are doing. Elite athletes thoughts are totally absorbed in the race itself (stay in the present).  They concentrate on strategy (e.g., holding the correct pace for the segment of the race they were in), on staying relaxed, and on running as efficiently as possible.

Relaxation and Efficiency

  • If you give 100%, you get tense, and perform at lower levels than if you exert at a 90% effort
  • Focus on running in control, and on the mechanics of arm swing or foot plant, and maintaining a certain rhythm and pace
  • Focus on the process of the race, such as tactics, form, stride, and posture, rather than outcomes and results.  You can’t control outcomes and results, so don’t try to control what can’t be controlled
  • Practice the ancient wisdom of “soft is strong” as in the martial arts.  Focus on running smarter, not harder (harder makes you tense up).
  • Try relaxing your shoulders, arms, and face
  • Repeat the words … relax, relax, relax, soft is strong
  • Relaxed muscles are more fluid
  • Relaxed bodies burn less energy
  • Relaxation lowers blood lactate
  • Concentration and focus are better when you’re relaxed
  • Ways to relax:
    • Your Face – facial muscles control most of the tension in your body. Let the skin hang down on the face bones, soften your eyes, loosen your jaw, and relax your neck.  Smile, and you will relax all over
    • Your Body – run tall, keep your hands soft, stride smoothly, relax the shoulders and keep the arms low.  Move faster by focusing on relaxation rather than on applying power.  Think of yourself gliding.
    • Your Words – don’t say “run hard”, say “run smart”; don’t tell yourself to “push”, say “glide” and “float”; learn to use a cue word like “calm” or “relax”.  Chant a mantra like “run strong, run long.”

Keeping your Focus

  • Don’t resist the distraction of being uncomfortable.  You know it’s coming. Give it credence by talking to it. Once you accept the situation, the distraction will ease up and the ability to focus will improve.
  • Focus on what can be done at the moment.  Don’t think about the future.  Divide the task into small, manageable segments.  Strive to hang on for a specific distance or time.  At the very worst, you’ll run better for that distance.  At best, you might catch a second wind.
  • Focus on your stride, your cadence, you form, your breathing, perhaps the feet of the runner directly in front of you, or a specific spot on their shoulder.

Coping with Fatigue

  • Fighting or becoming angry with fatigue causes tension
  • Talk to the distraction – “Hi, fatigue … it’s you again.  I’m busy right now … got a race to finish.”
  • Slow down slightly and focus on relaxing the body.  Then focus on slowing your breathing while maintaining a good stride.  Very slight changes in pace can yield large improvements in perceived effort.
  • Rather than obsess about how far you have to go, focus on small, manageable segments
  • Concentrate on form and pace, on your mechanics
  • Imagine yourself attached to a runner ahead by some invisible cord.  With each stride, draw the cord tighter
  • Visualize running smoothly, effortlessly, and full of energy.  Imagine the tightness in your shoulder muscles dissipating as you relax and drop your arms for 30 seconds
  • Change your beliefs about the discomfort – it’s the feeling you get when you’re working hard.  It’s an indication you are exploring the outer boundaries of your potential
  • Get a reality check!  Everyone around you hurts too.
  • Divert your mind with a mantra like “I feel great, I feel smooth.”  Words directly influence our reality.  Keep them positive
  • Small, frequent adjustments in running speed can overcome fatigue

Guides to Letting Go

  • Form focus – stay in the moment, focus on your cadence, your form, your pace, and your stride
  • Confidence – run and race as you do in training, where there is nothing at stake
  • Get the job done – just do it; race without care.  Show up to run, have fun, and set your body free to do all it was trained to do; race the best you can and not obsess about the outcome and you’ll run more relaxed.  When you  obsess about the result, or what expectations have been set on you by coaches, parents, articles, your breaking point gets tested when the outcome of the race looks dismal, or you worry about slowing, or you start being passed.

Embrace your Competitor - view them as a partner.  The better they run, the better you will too.  The most important question one can ask in the midst of a race is “what can I do now?  Now that I’m tired, now that I’m being dropped, now that I’m losing confidence.  By focusing on what you can do as opposed to what you can’t, you begin to take positive action.

After a Race

Accept and tolerate failure as a necessary ingredient, the price paid for taking the risks to improve.  Learn from your failures.  What did I do right in the race, what might I have done differently. Congratulate yourself for having taken the risk.

It is important to cultivate a positive and constructive mental dialogue during racing.  This includes encouraging yourself, concentrating on the effort you are making, evaluating your goals for each of the race segments, and carrying on general self-talk to maintain a positive attitude.

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